Museum Correspondences
: Social, material, and conceptual relations between the British Museum and Nigerian Antiquities Service, c.1945-1970

  • Nikki Grout

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis examines the nature of engagements between the British Museum and Nigerian Antiquities Service from 1945 to 1970. In the years directly following the Second World War, staff in the British Museum’s Department of Ethnography and the emerging national museum network in Nigeria were actively engaging with each other to build collections, deliver training and mount exhibitions. Taking place in the years preceding and following Nigerian independence in 1960, these events were entangled with the tentative, contradictory and extended process of decolonisation. Until now, remarkably little research has explored these early relationships which are notable as the first examples of contact between the British Museum and national museums in Nigeria. The British Museum serves as a useful focus because it was the main and most significant point of museum ‘collaboration’ between Nigeria and the UK, and to some degree continues to be so today. This research offers new understandings of this relationship by exploring diverse modes of relationality – social, material, and conceptual – that were forming around various collection-based practices in the mid-twentieth century. Archival research has been supplemented with secondary methodologies of oral history and participant observation, and approaches to the study of relations have been borrowed from sociology and anthropology. ‘Networks’ and ‘meshworks’ have been identified as useful theoretical frameworks to track the organisational heterogeneity of interactions, and the concepts of ‘collaboration’, ‘correspondence’ and ‘friction’ are used to analyse the complex nature of inter-museum engagements.

This research contributes to an emerging body of work that explores the changes taking place in European museums holding non-European collections in the years of constitutional decolonisation. It demonstrates that museum practice at this time mirrored the shifts and inconsistencies of colonial policy, and was reactive, inventive and adaptable, with consequences that continue to shape debates concerned with Nigerian collections today. This thesis argues that it was not only British Museum structures, processes, and interests that influenced the new Nigerian museum service, but that the creation of the first museums in Nigeria also shaped practices, interpretation and collections at the British Museum. The relationship between the British Museum and Nigerian Antiquities Service is shown to be mutually constitutive, albeit asymmetrical. Finally, this research enhances our understanding of the nature of ‘collaborative’ museum practice in a historical, late-colonial context. This provides useful coordinates for reflections on present-day museum processes, at a time when institutions in Africa and Europe are once again under pressure to re-define their relationship and ways of working together.
Date of AwardJun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorClaire Wintle (Supervisor) & John Giblin (Supervisor)

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